Assessing Your Needs

The first steps to choosing your ideal front end
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By John Krogh
What is it about your recording path that you want to change? In other words, why do you need a front end? This should be the first question you ask yourself before leafing through a gear catalog or rushing out to the local pro audio shop.

We all want our recordings to sound better, but what does better mean to you? To answer this, start by scrutinizing the individual tracks and final mixes you’ve done in your studio. What’s missing? Lack of depth? Punch? Is there noise building up on tracks recorded through a particular preamp? Are the highs too strident? Are your mixes cohesive or do they sound like a bunch of disparate overdubbed parts all playing at the same time? Maybe you already know how to record good-sounding tracks, but the results are too colored (or more likely, not colored enough) for the style you work in. If you can’t identify the problem areas, you won’t be able to make an informed decision about what to fix or upgrade.

Broadly speaking, front end devices are anything used in the signal path before audio is committed to the hard disk. By this definition, we’re talking microphones, preamps, compressors, EQs, “flavor” boxes, and even A/D converters. That’s a wide range of gear; in-depth coverage of all these categories is beyond what we can manage in these pages. I’ve limited the scope of this article to preamps —whether you record your own vocals, overdub studio musicians one at a time, or track stereo keyboards, a good preamp is necessary for producing quality recordings. So with this in mind, let’s look at a variety of session scenarios and which type of preamp would work best in each situation.

• 2-track classical recording. If you record classical music (quartets, piano and flute duos, brass ensembles, classical guitar, and so on), you want the clearest, cleanest path from the microphones to the recorder. A stereo or 2-channel preamp with as few extra components and stages as possible is ideal, There’s little need for processing such as EQ, de-essing, and compression. In general, tubes will provide more color to the sound, so a Class A solid-state device may be preferred; however, some manufacturers claim excellent noise and distortion specs for their tube preamps. If you feel your recordings are too clinical or sterile, a modern tube preamp might give the recording just enough “warmth” without adding unwanted tube character.

• Vocals. The choice here is dependent on the style of music. For pop, hip-hop, and R&, you may want a punchy, present sound, but for jazz or ‘60s and ‘70s-style rock a more “old school” tone would be appropriate. There are other factors to consider: How a vocalist approaches the mic, the timbre of their voice, choice of microphone, etc., all play a big part in the overall sound. Having a flexible single-channel preamp with tonal shaping tools such as EQ and dynamics is a must. If you have a variety of mics — tube, ribbon, condenser, dynamic — a preamp with variable impedance would be a smart option. Likewise, the ability to switch between solid-state and tube stages will give you a wider tonal palette.

• Electric guitar and bass. If you’re laying guitar tracks down in your bedroom or home studio, chances are you don’t have a big room for a multi-miked amp-in-a-room setup. However, close miking is likely a viable option — one mic directly on the speaker grille, and another mic 1–3 feet away is a common approach. If this works for your space, a 2-channel preamp with EQ will be your best bet. EQ will be handy for carving out frequency ranges to produce a good blend between the mics. A compressor isn’t as essential though, as the output from an amp is already compressed to a certain degree. That said, I’ve heard some amazing guitar tracks that owed much of their vibe to a compressor in the chain.

If the idea of reamping appeals to you, consider a preamp with instrument inputs. That way, you could use one channel to record the direct sound from the guitar, and the other channel for miking the cabinet. Matching the level and impedance from the recorder to work with a guitar amp isn’t an issue if you reamp through plug-ins. But if you plan to send the direct signal back out to an amp or outboard guitar processor, consider a dedicated “reamping” box.

• Stereo keyboards. Synths and samplers are capable of producing a seemingly infinite number of sounds and textures, but even so, most keyboards can benefit from passing through a quality preamp before hitting the hard disk. A preamp can give you more grunge or a smoother top end, for example. On a more practical tip, keyboards don’t all work at the same operating level — a preamp can help “optimize” the output signals.

So what should you look for? A stereo or 2-channel preamp with EQ and variable types of compression, and possibly a “saturation” stage, will give you the most flexibility for tracking keys. And remember, you’re not limited to recording “real” sources, either — running software instruments through a preamp is an effective way to beef up otherwise flat-sounding synths.

Obviously, there’s a lot to ponder when it comes to investing in the front end. And it is an investment. You can expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred bucks to $4,000 or more, depending on what you’re after. So do your homework. Read the other segments in this feature. Then gather opinions from engineers you trust. Call around to see if you can rent the gear on your front-end wish list. Try the front ends with the same test sessions and a variety of mics, if possible. Record the results for A/B comparison. Let your ears be the judge of what’s best. It might sound like a lot of work, but aren’t your recordings worth it?